Want to do an engagement session at Dream Lake, or go for a hike to get epic wedding or elopement photos in Rocky Mountain National Park? I hike to Dream Lake every month of the year, and built this guide to share all my favorite tips and tricks for tackling this iconic Colorado hike.
Larsen Photo Co. is authorized by the National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, to conduct services in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Chances are, you’ve seen one of the many epic photos of Dream Lake on social media, and you’re here to see if you could elope at Dream Lake or do your engagement photos here.
I’ve hiked to Dream Lake more times than I can count over the past ten years, and love how this hike can look so completely different at different times of the year. I love bringing couples here for photos, because the views really are the best around – especially with the short distance.
This guide will show you photos of Dream Lake in different seasons, break down the hike so you know exactly what to expect, and give you all the rules you need to know about taking photos here.
(And if you’re a photographer who’s looking for info about shooting at Dream Lake? I’ll give you all the permit info you need to get epic photos legally.)
Ready to learn everything there is to know about Dream Lake engagement and wedding photos?
Great! Let’s get to it.
Quick Facts about Dream Lake
Can we elope at Dream Lake?
No, you cannot have an elopement or wedding ceremony at Dream Lake. Rocky Mountain National Park has very strict rules on where you can have a ceremony in the park, even when there are only two people and no guests.
Check out my RMNP wedding guide to see the full list of approved ceremony locations.
Can we take wedding photos at Dream Lake?
There’s always a loophole! While you can’t have get married at Dream Lake, you can hike there for couples portraits before or after having your ceremony at one of the approved locations in the park, or at one of the many Estes Park wedding venues. Just make sure your photographer has a permit!
Do we need a permit to take engagement photos at Dream Lake?
Your photographer needs a commercial photography permit to shoot your engagement session at Dream Lake. The permit is $50, and can be applied and paid for instantly online from the RMNP website. If you’re a local photographer who expects to photograph multiple sessions a year in RMNP, you can also apply for a $300 unlimited permit that covers every visit.
If you are eloping at one of the official ceremony sites in RMNP, your wedding permit also covers you for anywhere else in the park you want to take photos. If you are having a ceremony outside of the park but want to take photos at Dream Lake, your photographer will need to get the $50 permit.
How long is the Dream Lake hike?
The hike to Dream Lake from Bear Lake Trailhead is 1.1 miles each way, or 2.2 miles round trip, with 425 ft of elevation gain. Most people hike it in around 30-45 minutes each direction, but it could take up to an hour to get up if you are coming from sea level or if you’re not used to hiking at altitude.
How far is Dream Lake from Denver?
Dream Lake is a 2-hour drive from Denver to Bear Lake Trailhead, plus a 1.5-2 hour out-and-back hike.
Where is Dream Lake, and how do you get there?
Dream Lake is a high alpine lake located at 9905 ft elevation in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado. The hike begins at Bear Lake Trailhead; the busiest trailhead in the whole national park. The closest park entrance is Beaver Meadows. From Estes Park, the closest nearby town, you can drive to the trailhead, or take one of the many free shuttles in summer.
The hike to Dream Lake can be incredibly busy, and you should plan accordingly. If you want to hike on a weekend in summer, plan on getting to the trailhead no later than 8am to get a parking spot. If you arrive later, chances are you’ll have to turn around and drive back to one of the park-n-ride lots, then take the free shuttle bus back to the trailhead.
The trailhead is less busy on weekdays and in winter, but you will never be the only people on the trails here.For comparison, the Beaver Meadows entrance sees around 135,000 visitors in July, compared to only 15,000 in January. Even when hiking up in the dark before sunrise on a weekday in winter, you can expect to find other cars in the parking lot, and run into other hikers on the trails.
But don’t let that hold you back. Unless you want complete solitude, hiking to Dream Lake is well worth the crowds for how beautiful the views are.
What’s the best time of year for photos at Dream Lake?
The trail to Dream Lake is accessible all year round, but will have very different conditions depending on when you hike it.
Hiking to Dream Lake in summer
The summer season in the Colorado mountains can be short. The trail will normally be snow-free by the end of June, but this can be earlier or later depending on how much snow we got the previous winter. By the middle of July, wildflowers start blooming, and the trail is dry. Towards the middle of September, the aspens start changing colors, and fall colors in the high country is absolutely a sight worth seeing.
Hiking to Dream Lake in winter
The first snow fall in Rocky Mountain National Park usually comes in the beginning of October. You can expect snow on the trail from the middle of October and through the middle of June. You don’t need snowshoes to hike to Dream Lake, unless there was a recent heavy snowfall. For most of the winter, the trail is so packed down from other hikers that good winter boots are enough.
Microspikes are an absolute necessity when you hike to Dream Lake in winter. And if you have any problems with balance, I highly recommend trekking poles as well. The trail is often icy, and every time I hike I see tourists who are slipping and falling because there are wearing sneakers on the trail. Don’t be those people. You can rent microspikes at Estes Park Mountain Shop for $8, or spikes and poles for $9.
If I’m photographing your elopement or engagement session, I have extra microspikes in every size so that you can borrow mine instead of renting!
What’s the best time of year for engagement photos?
I personally love winter at Dream Lake. In summer, there are a lot of protected areas on the lakeshore that should not be walked on because of restoration efforts. In winter, you have more space to move around the shore, and you can also walk out onto the frozen ice. January and early February is the best time for photos on the ice, as the snow gets deep when we get into March.
Note: if you are planning on going out onto the ice, please ask a ranger at the trailhead or visitor center if the ice is safe. The lake freezes at different times every year. I’ve seen hikers go onto the ice before it was completely frozen, who went through the ice and had to hike back down again with soaked boots and pants. Be safe out there!
What’s the best time of day for wedding photos?
Sunrise at Dream Lake is by far the most epic time of day. The iconic mountain range above the lake, including Hallet Peak, face east. When the sun first starts hitting the mountains in the morning, they take on a beautiful orange and pink hue called “alpenglow.”
At sunrise on weekends in summer, there’s always a very good chance of running into other hikers and photographers at the lake. Please be courteous to others, try to stay out of each others’ way, and don’t go out onto the ice or rocks in front of the cameras if there are landscape photographers with tripods lined up to capture the alpenglow. We’re all in this together!
Sunset at Dream Lake can also be beautiful for photos, but you will not get a traditional “golden hour.” The sun disappears behind the mountains almost two full hours before sunset, and the temperature drops immediately when the sun is gone.
Try to avoid hiking to Dream Lake for wedding or engagement photos in the middle of the day on Saturdays and Sundays. It’s hard to find parking, and it can be very hard to get good photos without other people in the background.
Looking for a photographer to help you plan and capture an engagement session or elopement photos at Dream Lake? Check out my prices, then get in touch and let’s make it happen!
About Nina Larsen Reed
Nina Larsen Reed is an elopement photographer based in Boulder, Colorado. She plans and captures adventure elopements and intimate weddings, and has photographed over 200 elopements across the Rocky Mountains since 2017.